Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans, Sahra Mellesse
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 12/28/11 (limited); 1/6/12 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 5, 2012
The central conflict of Pariah is between the need to be oneself and the desire of others to maintain a sense of normality. It's played out in the daily life of a teenager on the verge of adulthood who is open about her sexuality to everyone except those people to whom she should be closest. She dresses "normally" for her father and especially her mother before heading to school, only to rush into the bathroom to put on clothing in which she is more comfortable—namely loose pants, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat. Around school, they speak of her in just-audible whispers, calling her an "a.g." or an aggressive sort of girl who doesn't shy away from who she is.
There's a great deal of irony in that observation, since Alike (Adepero Oduye, a wellspring of naturalistic innocence) is about as far removed from an aggressive personality as one could be. She's timid and uncomfortable in her own skin, hanging out at a local club for lesbians where women dance on poles, flirtations abound, and phone numbers are exchanged. Alike sits in the corner, watching—longing to fit in, if not anywhere else, then here.
Alike has a support structure, for sure. Her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) goes with her to club. She knows Alike wants a girlfriend and, even though perhaps Laura would like to be that to her, encourages her to come out of her shell and maybe meet someone. Though a limited role with little screen time, her teacher (Zabryna Guevara) pushes Alike to write more than just good poetry and actually say something about herself and the way she sees the world.
Even the majority of Alike's family—though not ones to talk openly about it—seems to accept her. Her younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) might laugh and make jokes (especially when she catches her older sister trying on a strap-on for a trip to the club later that night), but it's just a ritual for siblings. When push comes to shove and the two find themselves in bed late at night as their parents shout at each other downstairs, Sharonda says to Alike what she and we already knew: "You know it doesn't matter to me, right?"
Her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), who is the only character to have much complexity beyond what's presented at face value, knows who his daughter is and is in denial—not because he can't accept it but because he wants to protect her from the inevitable difficulties and sideways glances and outright bigotry that will arise. "You know you're daddy's girl," he says, echoing Sharonda's statement.
Judging from these elements alone, writer/director Dee Rees' movie might appear to be an uncomplicated coming-of-age story, and, in reality, it is. The actual complications in Alike's life come from two sources. The first, in order of both introduction and importance, is her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), a woman who refuses to suffer fools or time-wasters and who, based on a scene of her snubbing her co-workers, sees everyone else as a fool or a waste of her time—if not both. She's convinced there's something wrong with her daughter; "God doesn't make mistakes," she tells Alike (a line so transparently two-sided (if even that) that we can only count down the time until it's thrown back in Audrey's face).
Audrey has perhaps one two-line exchange that comes across as ordinary, and from there on out, her scenes are filled with either passive-aggressive tension or outright disdain. Wayans, like most of the rest of the cast, gives as good a performance as possible from material that seems to hunt for melodramatic struggles instead of revealing the characters within them. For example, Audrey and Arthur's marriage is on the rocks, due to his growing frustration with her desire to be more financially well-to-do (Rees spares a single line to illuminate this point) and an extramarital affair. The scenario offers little in the way of character development but plenty in the realm of shouting matches.
The second complication for Alike is Bina (Aasha Davis), a classmate and the daughter of Audrey's co-worker, whom Audrey believes would be a better influence on Alike than Laura (Laura has her own issues with which to deal, and Rees once again does few favors to this character, either). When Alike starts to see her as more than a friend, we can only wait for the other shoe to inevitably drop.There's a strong feeling of inevitability surrounding most of Pariah, as Alike's journey to self-enlightenment and nourishment progresses. Every dramatic beat feels preordained, and it's simply because Rees (Her narrative feature debut certainly showing strength in bold visual simplicity and culling fine performances) is more concerned with situations than characters.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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